"I am an idealistic, naive, passionate, truth-seeking, spiritually motivated artist, unschooled in the science of law and finance." --Wesley Snipes

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Craft (Inspired by Mayhew)

In an earlier post, I mentioned that Jonathan Mayhew’s answer regarding “craft” seemed adequate. Adequate, of course, is just that—it’ll do for now, but there’s probably more that needs to be said.

I’ve been thinking particularly about how Mayhew defines “craft”:

It depends what you mean by craft; I've always had problems with that word. What is considered good poetry in academia (but what part of academia; I am an academic myself?) does reflect a certain idea of "craft," which usually means conformity to a period style. I can see a more "skilled" poem being rejected in favor of an (apparently) less skilled one. When we say a poem is well crafted how is that different from simply saying that it is a good poem?

Let’s take it sentence by sentence. “Craft” has always been a troubling word for me too—there are too many assumptions about what “craft” is and the word itself carries too many valences to be useful without a lot of qualification.

Jonathan’s next sentence, though, while partially correct, I think, opens a new can(s) of worms. There are two ideas at work here. First, “craft” means something different to academics than the rest of us. Sub-idea: some of us who quibble with the notion of craft are academics. Where do we fit? I can only answer that “academia” must be qualified thusly: “academic critics who rely primarily on a New Critical apparatus for explication and who are generally less than hospitable to poetries post-1950s academic poetries, i.e. Donald Allen’s anthology and its progeny.” For these critics, “craft” means something like a well-wrought urn. It has ambiguity (seven or eight types—I always forget), it has wit, it is impersonal, it is TIDY. The assertion about conformity to a period style is apt if we consider that academic critics suckled on Empson, Brooks, etc., tended to admire poetry written by poets who were taught by Empson, Brooks, Penn Warren, etc. So the “mainstream” poetry of the 1950s did confirm to a period style—it was a style that confirmed the validity of New Criticism, an approach that did much to validate the notion of the Literature Department. If one knows the rules, poetry becomes much more like math or science. Poems written in the period style need only follow the rules. (Well, this is a bit reductive—that intangible, talent, must also be present.)

I think this assertion falls apart if we consider that “period style,” especially today, is a loaded term. It’s usually employed by folks (post-avant or not) who would denigrate “mainstream” poetry—call it a period style and be done with it. Silliman’s School Of Quietude is a strawmannish approach that has the same rhetorical function: labeling a poem or a poet or a school of poetry as SOQ takes it off the table. The term is a misnomer, as the poetries that Silliman dismisses are not a school per se, but rather the poetries for which Silliman has little respect. By grouping them together as a school, however, the effect is one of intensification—they become a threat to the “good” (Silliman-approved, post-Language, post-avant) poetries. SOQ, then, both dismisses as irrelevant and posits as a threat most mainstream poetries. I should say here (picking up the thread that I’ve digressed from) that SOQ, as I understand it, can’t be a “period style” because it’s always the dominant style of any period.

So what’s this period style that Jonathan mentions? I’d say the main problem with this grouping (and it’s usefulness as a tool of dismissal) is that it fails to account for the fact that there are several identifiable period styles at any given time. I’ll list a few.

Kent Johnson, in an article, interview, or email, once characterized today’s “period style” (at least among younger poets) as poetry that seems like the result of the unholy and anachronistic commingling of Gertrude Stein’s ova with Frank O’Hara’s jism. I’ve found this a particularly useful category because it really does seem to cover a lot of ground. We could slice this up further into sub-styles, but I’ll leave it at this for now.

(I’m thinking of making a Cartesian chart with Stein on the Y and O’Hara on the X, and plotting some contemporary poets.)

Another period style, that practiced by most U.S. Poet Laureates might be called “workshop style” or “earnest free verse” or “genteel free verse” or even “SOQ, Type B,” is exemplified by the Collinses, Glucks, Koosers, etc. This is non-offensive poetry, “well-crafted” (i.e. TIDY) poetry that delivers a neat epiphany and is clothed in plain, only slightly “poetic” language. It seems wholesome but probably isn’t very good for you, but won’t kill you either. (The poets themselves might kill you however--Franz Wright, the Pulitzer Pugilist, practices this style.) I call this Laureate-Pulitzer-Workshop poetry the "Wonder Bread" period style.

There is a period style (or maybe it’s a sub-style of the Wonder Bread style) that I’ll call the “Tortilla style.” This style takes one’s ethnic, racial, sexual, economic, or political identity and fetishizes or ghettoizes it. There are several MFA programs that specialize in this sort of writing. One, which I will not name, even calls itself “The MFA of Color.” Is there any innovative or even interesting writing coming out of programs like this? Not much. What good there is flies extremely low to the ground, and leaves the airspace as soon as the two years are up. Features of this style include obligatory poems about grandparents (and how they’re different from white people), foods ( and how “exotic” the foods that the poet ate growing up are), living oppressed and poor (most of these poems are written by rich kids who got a SUV for graduation and who have never seen the ghetto in their life). This period style holds hands with the “working class style” that serves the same function as the Tortilla style—to fetishize, exoticize, romanticize, the lives of poor white folks. These poets long to publish in the “Best” magazines—the ones run by upper middle class white folks, i.e. the oppressors. Hm.

There are elliptical poets, but I really don’t know what that means. Ask Steve Burt.

Andy Mister and I are toying with the idea of forming a new school of poetry (that capitalizes on a new period style we’ve noticed, a style that is a backlash, I’m sure, against the detached irony of much young post-avant work) called the “New Sincerity.” I realize the name is kind of lame, but poets who might fit under this rubric include Andy and me, Joe Massey, and Charles Jensen. There are more, many more. We just need to recruit them and collect membership fees.

Each of these period styles has its own notion of what “craft” is. As I mentioned below, when a contest judge praised my manuscript as being “well-crafted” I could only laugh. I don’t know what that means. I think maybe Jonathan is most correct when he suggests that we call “well-crafted” those poems we think are good. If Frank O’Hara sits down at the typewriter and writes a poem in a single setting while watching a movie on television, is it really “crafted”? If it’s a good poem, then how do we explain the “evident craft” of what is essentially an only draft?


Jonathan said...

Good post. I think you you do a good job of unpacking my garbled suitcase of an explanation.

I had the "workshop" style in mind when I used the phrase "period style." That it because that is where the word craft tends to be used the most often, and with the specific meaning of a poem that bears the traces of a good "workshopping." Years of working at "craft" can result in the ability to dash off an apparently casual poem that actually does require enormous skill, but that doesn't seem revised to death, workshop skill. The problem might be that we want some notion of craft not contaminated by its association with ANY particular style, be it 50s academic, workshop, or post-avant ironic. But such a "free-standing" definition does not exist.

Ginger Heatter said...

Isn't learning craft a bit like learning a second language? For a time one focuses on the mechanics, but as one progresses from proficiency to fluency one's use of the language becomes intuitive and creative. For that matter, poetry itself is a kind of distinct language--one which retains a native vocabulary, but is governed by different rules of grammar, syntax, rhythm, pacing; one which employs a different idiom; one which codes experience differently by reexamining the relationship between words-as-symbols and their meanings. Perhaps what any one period has is a number of discrete poetic languages, and like all languages, they evolve.

With regard to "New Sincerity"...I like it! If the membership fee is modest enough, perhaps I'll join. Seriously, though, I'm thrilled to poets talking in this direction. Thinking about poetry as a language again, I'm less and less taken with the notion of simply putting as much distance as possible between the vernacular and the poetic. We need a more complicated relationship between the two.

Great post!

(who is only academic in the sense of 'still working on that undergraduate degree')

Ginger Heatter said...

Sorry...thrilled to *hear* poets talking in that direction...my typing really sucks sometimes.

L. Trent said...

I have a sort of love/hate relationship with the word "craft" (& the idea). Being currently enslaved in an MFA program (would that I had known what they were all about as a clueless lit student) I see the various bad things about throwing the term around. When a poem with one really long line comes up in workshop one's teacher/poet might say "these lines need to be more carefully crafted" (meaning-- these lines should be a similar length). Another poet might say "you've obviously crafted this long line" (meaning, I see this line is long for a reason).

I guess I like to have the feeling that a poet has thought about the way a poem is put together. That's how I would define craft. I don't believe for one minute that Frank O'hara dashed off poems while watching television-- I think he enjoyed that particular persona.

But then again, sometimes you (universal you) write something without much planning & people see all sorts of intentionality in it. I guess it doesn't much matter either way.

Charles said...

I'm on. And I volunteer to collect the dues.